In her own words, Jessica Lea Mayfield was "an early starter." The Ohio-born singer-songwriter first appeared onstage at 8 years old, singing in her parents' bluegrass band One Way Rider. By age 11, she was writing her own songs, the way other teenagers might keep a diary. By 15, she had recorded an acoustic EP, White Lies, under the name Chittlin', although she wisely dropped that pseudonym. "People always talk about the progression of life," says Mayfield, now 21. "When I was a teenager, I was doing things that most people didn't do until they were the age I am now. So now I guess I'm spiritually in my 30s."
Mayfield's early teenage songs chronicle first love and first break-up in intense, often devastating, lyrics. With stark insights about connection and loss, those songs eventually formed the core of Mayfield's debut album, 2008's With Blasphemy So Heartfelt. The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, a fellow Ohioan and a fan of her earlier EP, produced the album at his home studio in Akron, and the rich analog sound gives Blasphemy its warm, lived-in feeling, which highlights Mayfield's bristly songwriting and languid vocals.
Blasphemy was essentially a rough-and-tumble solo album, but Mayfield's follow-up, Tell Me, highlights her road-hardened backing band, which includes ace guitar player Richie Kirkpatrick and her brother, David Mayfield (who also fronts the David Mayfield Parade). They had no particular sound in mind when they once again recorded at Auerbach's studio, but Mayfield for one felt more comfortable and confident this time around.
"It's definitely a progression for me, now that I'm older and my songwriting is so different," she says. "I feel like I've grown creatively, so it's made me more an equal to Dan and David and my band."
Documenting errant affections and doomed romances, Mayfield's lyrics have matured in parallel to her music, although the autobiographical bent of her songs has not changed. "I've been single for the past three years, and anything I write about on the new record is about flings or one-night stands," she says. "If I'm using the word 'love,' it's because I'm in love with a feeling, not a person."
While she has earned comparisons to artists as diverse as Lucinda Williams and Kurt Cobain, Mayfield possesses a distinctive ability to place listeners immediately inside a specific moment, similar to the way a playwright might set a stage. It lends songs like "Our Hearts Our Wrong" and "Grown Man" a verité quality that underscores their quiet urgency.
Some songs may catch listeners off guard with their sexual candor: "Grown Man" describes a tryst with an older lover in exacting detail, while "Sometimes at Night" opens with a couplet: "I broke the poor cabana boy's heart, just so you could fondle me in the dark." At times, that frankness can be uncomfortable even for Mayfield. "I wish I could write songs that weren't about me, because then I wouldn't have to sing about myself in front of people," she confesses. "I get onstage and have to sing these extremely personal songs. If I can put myself in a different place, then it's not quite so awkward, but I do wish I could write a song about something that happened in the 1800s. Maybe then it wouldn't affect me emotionally."
On the other hand, Mayfield appreciates the fact that her listeners can relate to her most private thoughts. "When I write a song, I get it all out of me," she says. "I feel better, and then hopefully when I play that song, other people relate to it and they feel better."
Even so, playing her older songs can be difficult for "a 21-year-old woman singing from the mindset of a 15-year-old girl," she says. "I have to relive the first fight I ever got into with my first boyfriend every single night. Most people forget about those situations. I don't. I have to sing about them."
As a result of what she calls "singing my secrets," Mayfield admits she gets depressed about her love life, but airing her romantic grievances has ultimately made her stronger. "You learn from your mistakes, especially if you sing about them every night," she says. "I have to constantly look back on all the stupid shit that I let myself go through, but now I know nobody's going to walk on me anymore. I'm not getting my heart broken."